Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Iran Plays in the Background

Concern mounted in the weeks prior to Israeli strikes against Gaza that Iran was stepping up efforts to exploit tension in Palestine. That concern coupled with fear that a Hamas victory in Gaza would strengthen Islamist forces across the Middle East has driven a wedge between Arab public opinion demanding assistance to the Palestinians and Arab governments' inability to effectively respond to the crisis. Some analysts believe Iran earlier this month was stoking Shiites to embarrass Arab governments by demonstrating already before the Israeli strikes against the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

In what seemed to be a coordinated move, Shiites demonstrated on December 19 in Beirut, Bahrain and Qatif, a predominantly Shiite area in eastern Saudi Arabia, where Shiites have more often defied a ban on public protests. With Hizbollah organizing the rally in Beirut, the Iranian connection was obvious. In Bahrain, the gathering of some 3,000 people ended in clashes with police, Three police officers were injured. Days earlier Bahrain arrested 15 people accused of planning to set off a series of bombs on Bahrain's national day. Saudijeans quotes the website Rasid as saying that several hundred demonstrators in Qatif waved posters of Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasarallah and chanted anti-Israeli and anti-US slogans. Police did not intervene but arrested tens of participants several days later. When protesters gathered again on Monday in Qatif in the wake of the Israeli strikes, police fired rubber bullets to break up the protest. Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki, denied that Monday's demonstration took place. "Street protests are banned in the Kingdom and security forces will intervene to enforce the ban," Reuters quoted Al-Turki as saying. Saudijeans said several petitions to allow for demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinians were rejected by the Interior Ministry, which fears that lifting the ban on public protests could set a precedent for demonstrations in demand of more rights in Saudi Arabia itself.

Reflecting Saudi concerns immediately after the demonstrations in Beirut, Bahrain and Qatif, Tariq Alhomayed, editor in chief of Saudi-owned Asharq Al Awsat wrote: "If the West fears the missiles that Iran claims it is developing, then we fear the Iranian bombs that are planted among us! The simplest example of this lies in last Friday's demonstrations in Bahrain. (Hamas political leader) Khalid Meshal repeatedly called for Arab demonstrations and received no response. Yet, when Hassan Nasrallah made similar calls for demonstrations in support the people of Gaza, even some Bahrainis took to the streets. Furthermore, the Bahraini protestors went so far as to pelt security officers with stones. What happened in Bahrain cannot be described as anything but a demonstration of power by the high-commissioner of Iran in our region, Hassan Nasrallah! It is so odd that the King of Bahrain [Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifah] instituted reforms in his country and relinquished some powers for the sake of his country and people, whilst some people [in Bahrain] are surrendering their decisions and freedom, not to mention their country's constitution, for the sake of the high-commissioner of the Wilayat Al Faqih," Iran's model of political guardianship of the clergy.

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